The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – Does this still apply?

William Whyte's The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

William Whyte's The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

If you’ve ever wondered why public spaces look the way they do, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces created by urbanist William Whyte will give you many clues. It’s obviously not new, it’s from 1979, so I wonder if the guidelines for creating a bustling public park are the same. The biggest change is probably how people use small gadgets to create their own, personal private spaces even while sitting in public. Christina Rosen wrote about the public use of cell phones and other small gizmos back in 2004. Her article is smart, but it was written well before smart phones started proliferating into our hands and pockets like bacteria.

One bit of irony from the film is what Whyte describes as “Probably the best Public square in the country” Cincinnati’s Fountain Square. I’m not sure why it was decided, or who made the decision, but by 2005 the plaza was closed and redeveloped. I only visited the old square a few times before it was renovated, and been there a few times since, so it’s probably unfair of me to compare the old and new, but I will say that the new one seems more enthusiastically commercial. It has all the exciting ingredients that would be alien to someone in 1979: an Urban-scaled TV, a parking garage covered in translucent glass with color-changing LEDs, and a restaurant in the middle of the square– but it seems more like a space for individuals now than a place for folks to meet or congregate.

The last time I visited Fountain Square before it was renovated, I was with my mom and some kind of step show was happening when we arrived there. Now, I just imagine people playing Angry Birds on their phones or watching the giant TV before their table is ready at the restaurant. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the change, but finding yourself in the middle of a step show is kind of amazing. That kind of spontaneity should happen more often, and I’m not sure it does when everyone is off in their own little world instead of the public sphere they happen to be walking through.

Alex Dent

March 22, 2012 / By

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